2007 great year for Mississippi sports fans

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 1, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — There is reason to look back and smile for Mississippi’s sports fans — finally.

There was nothing average about 2007. There were exceptional performances by Mississippians from high school to the pros, though few stories could surpass that of Sylvester Croom and Mississippi State in this football-obsessed state.

The Bulldogs made their first bowl appearance since 2000 on Dec. 29 in the sold-out Liberty Bowl, beating Central Florida 10-3. Croom led Mississippi State to seven wins during the regular season, the first time the Bulldogs have won more than three games since that 2000 season.

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Mississippi State upset Auburn, Kentucky and Alabama, put together an exciting, bowl-clinching 17-14 win over archrival Mississippi and found a quarterback for the future in Wes Carroll.

While Croom guided the Bulldogs back to relevance and earned the SEC’s coach of the year award, the state’s other two major college programs started in new directions.

Ole Miss fired Ed Orgeron after the Rebels’ first winless conference season since 1982 and just 10 wins as head coach. And Southern Miss and Jeff Bower parted ways after 17 years, 119 wins and 10 bowl appearances in 11 seasons.

Ole Miss struck quickly, hiring former Arkansas coach and proven winner Houston Nutt three days later. Southern Miss took its time and brought in Larry Fedora, Oklahoma State’s inventive offensive coordinator.

Both are seeking the kind of dominating results enjoyed by the state’s most successful high school football program, South Panola.

The Tigers finished the season with their fifth straight Class 5A state championship and stretched their nation-leading and state-record winning streak to 75 games. Led by Darius ‘‘Tig’’ Barksdale, who set a new state record with 2,917 yards rushing, South Panola didn’t miss a beat under new coach Lance Pogue.

Also on the football field: Jackson State won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship, Alcorn State replaced Johnny Thomas with Cincinnati assistant Ernest Jones and former Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis is the favorite for NFL defensive rookie of the year after being taken 11th overall in the draft last spring by the San Francisco 49ers.

The fun wasn’t confined to the gridiron, however. The state’s three largest universities enjoyed wild success in basketball and baseball as well.

The Ole Miss and Mississippi State men’s basketball teams surprised everyone by finishing as SEC West co-champions.

Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss all finished with 20 wins or more last season and the Rebels and Bulldogs played in the NIT.

The Rebels continued that successful run and as 2007 drew to a close were ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

The Ole Miss women’s basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament regional finals and it’s star, Arminitie Price, was named the WNBA’s rookie of the year after being drafted by the Chicago Sky.

The state’s big three earned postseason bids in baseball, and Ole Miss and Mississippi State advanced to super regionals. Ole Miss fell at Arizona State, but Mississippi State upset Clemson and advanced to Ron Polk’s eighth College World Series and sixth with the Bulldogs.

Mississippi’s magical season extended into the major leagues as well when former Mississippi State star Jonathan Papelbon helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.

Papelbon brought home to Hattiesburg the ball he threw to seal the Series, where he said his bulldog, Boss, chewed it up.

It was one of the few losses suffered in the state this year.